Every January my little sister and I set ourselves a competitive reading target for the year ahead. Last year we both overestimated ourselves a little, falling well short of the forty books we’d aimed for. This year we’ve settled on the (ever so slightly) more realistic target of 35.
Working for a charity that promotes Shared Reading as a means to better mental health and wellbeing, I read a lot, but after the first few dozen short stories and poems, plot lines can begin to get a little tangled. Sometimes you find yourself mixing up your Raymond Carvers and your John Cheevers.
Last year I moved from my role as a roving project worker delivering up to three Shared Reading groups a day, to the Communications team, which has somewhat reduced how much literature I read on a day to day basis, not to say anything of my step count.
So as well as making some resolutions to move a little more (…still work in progress) I also decided to make reading a priority. Last year I started up a book club with some friends to keep myself reading, and reading diversely, and to keep track of what I do read… here we are.
The Muse by Jessie Burton
“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was – and so I suffered according to how my work was received. The idea that anyone might be able to detach their personal value from their public output was revolutionary.”
The Muse, Jessie Burton
Contrary to popular opinion, I always judge a book by it’s cover. For the simple reason that if you have endured the long, painful process of actually writing a book, and the even longer, more arduous process of having it published, why the hell would you give up the fight when it comes to the artwork – the first impression it will make on the reader.
Thankfully, Jessie Burton has form when it comes to beautiful artwork. The manuscript for her debut novel, The Miniaturist was subject to a bidding war at the London Book Fair in 2013 and the book became an international bestseller after it was published by Picador the following year, winning both Waterstones’ and Specsavers’ Book of the Year Award. But tribute also needs to be paid to the magic of the cover design which recreated the Dolls House around which the novel spins.
So how to follow such success with the second novel? A challenge for the writer, but also for the designer, particularly when the novel again centres around a piece of art. Picador designer Ami Smithson might have taken The Goldfinch route of showcasing the fictional artwork, in this case a striking, surrealist painting rooted in biblical imagery but instead the cover of The Muse is like a reigned in, modern William Morris design playing with ideas of symbolism and folklore, much like the stories that are intertwined between the two distinct times and places over which this narrative unfolds.
After all, the painting at the centre of this story is surrounded by secrecy and mystery, it could hardly be plastered across the front cover for all to see before we discover the intriguing story around its conception. Both the artist, Olive, secluded in rural Spain in 1936 and the aspiring writer, Odelle, who uncovers the painting’s history in the Skelton gallery in London in 1967, share a reluctance, even an anxiety to allow their work to pass into the public domain.
Burton explores the intricacies of the artist’s personal attachment to their work, the thorny nature of pouring the personal into something which becomes public property.
As readers and observers of art it is that personal feeling that we connect with. Without it, there’s nothing to intrigue us, if the art doesn’t grab our attention we’re unlikely to look any further, to take the book off the shelf and read the blurb or thumb through the pages.
I picked up The Muse in Manchester Airport a couple of days after Christmas en route to Malta where over the course of a week I turned over pages during restful lie ins, quiet moments between outings and lastly during the regretful final hours in the airport before we flew home. It felt right to begin the year, a year with a resolution to write more, with a book that fretted over the difficulties of writing, of creating something for the public gaze.
An easy holiday read perhaps, but just the ticket.
The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
“As daylight barged against the misted-up windows, the words poured out of his mouth in a long string of syllables, occasionally punctuated by silences that engulfed the rattling of the train. For all those fellow commuters, he was the reader, the bizarre character who each weekday would read out, in a loud, clear voice, from the handful of pages he extracted from his briefcase.”
The Reader on the 6.27, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
This book was frustrating.
Like The Muse, I was drawn to this book by it’s cover. There’s something very Grand Budapest Hotel about it which drew me in but it was the blurb which decided it.
“Sitting on the 6.27 train each day, Guylain recites aloud to a rapt audience from pages he was saved from the jaws of the pulp machine.”
A book about reading aloud, about what is essentially Shared Reading – the very thing that has been at the centre of my working day for the past 3 years. Of course I bought it.
I began reading it in a caravan in the Lake District one Sunday morning last year. We were at the drop zone (my other half, DH, likes to jump out of planes for fun) and although bright and clear, it was cold. The single Shared Reading group I now deliver occurs first thing every Monday morning, quite a pleasant way to start the working week, except on occasions such as this particular week, when I hadn’t prepared anything before leaving on Friday. So as I began The Reader on the 6.27, it was not without hope that it might serve a dual purpose and keep my Shared Reading group engaged for the coming months. The first chapter was oddly intriguing and as I hibernated beneath the covers in the caravan I could already anticipate the curiosity of my group members as we read it aloud together.
So the following morning we began. It seemed an easy enough read, relatively short – even if people didn’t take to it, we’d be done by Christmas in time for some festive reads from Charles Dickens or Dylan Thomas. I was confident we’d rattle through it without a hiccup. But not so.
Some group members enjoyed the strangeness of Didierlaurent’s style, embraced the unfamiliar Frenchness, even laughed aloud at the dry comedy it offered up. But as many others hated it. It was too stark, too vague, too gruesome, even too French. In the hour or so we read each week our conversations were often derailed by one or another group member lambasting the entire book for its failings.
One such failing, which I had to admit, was the zigzagging narrative which, for a group reading in small bursts, offered no sense of continuity. Had I been reading the book alone it might have been different, I could have set out at my own pace and most certainly finished it a lot sooner.
But for months we rallied on, following the weird twists and turns Didierlaurent led us down, enduring the grisly descriptions and embracing the bizarre characters encountered along the way. Toward the end everyone had more or less settled into the writer’s mindset, and perhaps with the final pages in sight, they were more willing to accept the story on its own merits. Our weekly sessions did not pass without a real chuckle and as the love story emerged, the emotional connection which individuals in the group had been missing suddenly seemed to present itself.
I wondered if that had been the stumbling block for this book in this group – a group predominantly of women of a certain age. The book presents a very dark, very mechanical, very macabre world which was more or less entirely male-orientated for the first half. It was only as Guylain stumbled upon the quirky female characters who began to brighten up his own dark existence that the women in my Monday morning group also began to lighten up. I’d go so far as to say that by the end, they were enjoying it. However, our final summaries were not favourable overall.
I may some day return to this book and go at it alone if only to settle my own suspicions that The Reader on the 6.27 is actually a good read, just not an ideal Shared Read.